Two schnooks decide to produce a play that’s bound to fail as a way of fleecing their investors. Such is the premise for Mel Brooks’ 1967 debut film The Producers, as broad as Broadway and cheerfully, life-affirmingly tasteless and nuts.
A mere twenty years since Hitler kicked the bucket in his bunker, comedian and TV star Mel Brooks appears with a raucous, loud – Pauline Kael called it “amateurishly crude” – comedy whose centerpiece is a play entitled Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. The part before the colon was also supposed to be the title of the film until some weary producers, who unlike their titular counterparts actually wanted to make some money, nixed the idea.
Zero Mostel plays Max Bialystock, a fading theatrical producer of Orson Welles girth and volubility who has been reduced to seducing ancient women for their money, ostensibly for theatrical productions which either never see the light of day or fail. Leopold Bloom (Gene Wilder in only his second film role) is the timid, almost childlike – “Where’s my blankie?” – accountant who makes the mistake of thinking out loud about how, if a play were to fail, the producers wouldn’t have to pay the investors back.
The idea appeals to Max, who is soon employing his powers of seduction on Leo, taking him out for a hotdog, boating on Central Park lake and a ride on the merry-go-round, to persuade him to turn his off-the-cuff idea into a money-spinning reality. The non-ironic love letter to Hitler by an unrepentant Nazi (Kenneth Mars) looks to be a sure-fire dud and with the help of a pretentious, terrible director Roger De Bris (Christopher Hewett) and an acid casualty folk singer in the lead role (Dick Shawn as Lorenzo St. DuBois aka L.S.D.) they put on the only show on Broadway which aims not to go on.
Brooks’ comedy is broad vaudevillian stuff. It loves parody more than satire; guffaws rather than smiles; humour rather than wit. It trucks in stereotypes both ethnic and sexual, physical and grotesque: “Fat, fat, fat, you’re fat,” Leo cries as he fights Max. It was considered tasteless at the time, and some elements have increased in tastelessness today. Post #MeToo, it’s difficult to countenance the Swedish secretary Ulla (Lee Meredith) whose job it is to gyrate in her underwear to music whenever she’s ordered to ‘work’ as Max drools at the sight. But the naughty postcard sexism, the puffy queens and the comedy Nazi can all be forgiven because the film is just so flipping funny.
An ensemble of brilliant comic performances are over-the-topped by the two leads Mostel brings an angry immoral lustiness to his Max, while Wilder’s performance as the boy man who is liable to go into hysterics at a moment’s notice is so physical that he often seems on the verge of popping a vein or otherwise doing himself an injury as he visibly turns beetroot-coloured. Max tries to help by throwing water in his face – “Now I’m hysterical AND wet,” Leo screams.
Brooks would go on to make arguably better films – Young Frankenstein is slicker and more restrained; Blazing Saddles, wilder and more inventive – but The Producers is so effusively inappropriate and so damned funny it is one of the highest examples of low comedy.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty